Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Being Poor (part 1: Mr. Brightside)

My alma mater is a highly endowed institution; the weekly alumni publication manages to find us no matter where we go, whether we subscribe or not.  We are all potential endowment contributors.  I personally gave as I could.  These days my level of contribution  is $10-20 at best, and even that is a stretch... I have several times joked with classmates, many of whom have illustrious careers and paths of success, that I single-handedly lower their average income by double-percentage points... so I was a little taken aback when my alumni magazine cover article was titled 'Being Poor'.  Of course they were not referring to 'us', but to 'them'.

I am considered by many of my friends to be eccentric; my life choices are difficult and not conventional.  I live by my art.  I am somewhat proud of this, and fierce about my refusal to give in.  I am a hold-out-- a relic of the old New York bohemian cliché.  I do not live in subsidized housing-- have managed to make my own way, somehow.  The frequent 'number-crunching' sessions which challenge me at 3 AM are not about growth and retirement issues, profit and loss, value and cost... but basic bottom-line life issues.  How to eat, maintain my 'roof' (i.e. apartment), and manage to pay basic telephone/internet/Con Ed.  Beyond this, I buy virtually nothing--- a few subway rides to gigs... taxis are not on my expense sheets-- nor are clothes or movies, cellphones, take-out, a slice of pizza.  Over the past years I learned to forego my old craving for New York City street pretzels.  They do not accept foodstamps which, now that I have stopped resisting this benefit, provide a much more generous nutritional budget than I ever allowed myself.

Certainly I am not complaining.  I used to remind my son, growing up, when he whined about being the only player on his team without Jordans...  we are RICH-- we just do not have money.   I believe this, somehow.  I also distinctly remember the irony of what I would tell my mother, when she asked what I would become when I grew up-- that I want to be POOR-- a slap in the face to her fierce bourgeois values and the covert shadow of bitterness she hid so well when my Dad's personal psychology warranted an economic downturn in our household.

Unlike my mother, I have pretty much always had control of my life.  I had the best education money can (cannot?) buy without spending much... all the opportunities anyone can want-- a chance at the Golden Ring, a taste of self-made wealth... and then the haunting ironies of the dream of music and art.  As  a single Mom who traded everything for sole custody, I found myself back in the city with nothing-- my hands, my brain, a newborn who needed little I could not biologically provide-- a 'roof'... and a daily challenge to somehow manage foraging enough to keep us going.  There were days I played in the subway, did bars for the bucket-- got just enough gigs to get by, many days, on a bag of yesterday's donuts.  I learned the meaning of 'no':  no luxuries, no restaurants, no non-essentials, etc.  I had feet... my main means of transport... I was young enough that people wanted to give us things.  There is a sort of barter system here-- even in the city.  You discover these things-- free clinics, donated food-- the things people no longer need-- one man's garbage, etc.  You become resourceful and make things out of nothing-- the beauty of music. Yes, I had a guitar... and then you create out of your dreams... you paint with words-- you become, in the motto of my neighbor who chalked this everywhere he could-- on sidewalks and trees and discarded appliances-- your dream.

My friends know my personal economics are beyond any normal concept of thrift. Since I haunt the bargain-corps of Harlem and uptown-- I know the price of everything, to a penny-- I walk among the poor, and I am pretty much accepted into their society.  It is a different kind of culture-- and admittedly there are those who abuse the system, rely on being given what they need, have a certain reverse-entitlement.  But there are also the 'finders', like me, who navigate and calculate.  I will walk a good mile to save cents on potatoes or vegetables.  Occasionally I look into a cafe-- see people enjoying a coffee and a bagel-- anything-- sushi-- and I envy... I mean, I could splurge just once-- but something else must suffer.  And what I do 'score' ... is processed like an unexpected floral delivery.  It's all a gift-- it's the B-side of 'nothing'... which is everything, in a way.

Not that I don't worry obsessively and wake in the middle of the night (or day-- because my nights are when I 'make' them-- when I have finished my poems or my gigs or my puttering around with books) regretting that I didn't marry that nice man with the Hamptons estate and the baseball team... panicking I will lose my head or my mobility and be taken from my home into the worst city-run nursing facility with no reading material and bad TV.

But yesterday I found a quarter on the curb... 11 cents further uptown, shining like a diamond on the sidewalk.  The Turkish man who sells slightly damaged vegetables cheap gifted me a lemon and some ginger.  I will manage my bargain turkey I carried all the way from Target and will eat with a few friends-- my son... all the trimmings, thanks to foodstamps which no longer make me feel guilty but rewarded, in a way... and I can share this bounty.  I find I have everything I have ever wanted-- and a little more-- I am spoiled, and privileged, and I am damned grateful for this life of mine.  My classmates often accuse me of conducting some kind of socio-personal experiment, of feeling morally superior because I don't need money.  Oh but I do get paid for things... and I work hard, I do.  We musicians can make $100 for a night's work and with a little mercy and smart-economics, I can parlay this into a little joy, which is more than I can say for a good sector of this city population who have organic meals and grain-fed turkey, salon-hair, silver service, football tickets, Amazon Prime, Apple stock and i-Phone-Xs, balcony-views of the parade... healthy children... and fail to look out of their own windows as they mouth their grace.

(to be continued)

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